World Environment Day 2020: Promoting Biodiversity Conservation

Previously Biodiversity Day was celebrated on 29 December (the date CBD entered into force). Due to Christmas and new-year holidays, UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2000 decided to observe IDB on 22 May (the date CBD text was adopted).

June 3, 2020, 9:07 a.m.

Within two weeks, countries and people focussed on raising awareness on the need for conserving and managing biodiversity at the ecosystem, species and genetic levels. Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) observed 22 May as the International Day for Biodiversity (IDB) on the theme 'our solutions are in nature'. The COVID-19 lockdown has proved nature's self-assimilative capacity in making our environment clean, green and healthy and ensuring biodiversity conservation. The key message is to regulate anthropogenic activities that accelerated the destruction of ecosystems – aquatic or terrestrial ecosystems – and even extinction of species.

Previously Biodiversity Day was celebrated on 29 December (the date CBD entered into force). Due to Christmas and new-year holidays, UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2000 decided to observe IDB on 22 May (the date CBD text was adopted). On this day, countries normally review the implementation of their commitments on the Biodiversity Convention in meeting its three objectives: (i) conservation; (ii) sustainable use; and (iii) fair and equitable sharing of benefits. Some countries also declare their policies, strategies, plans and programs to implement the Convention and ensure biodiversity management at national and sub-national levels. Hence, 22 May is fully dedicated to biodiversity issues.

On 5 June 2020, countries are observing the World Environment Day (WED) with the theme 'celebrate biodiversity' to draw people's attention on the urgency of conserving biodiversity as the tenth of thousands of species are facing extinction; many more are becoming rare, endangered, threatened and vulnerable due to anthropogenic activities. The WED, also understood as 'people's day', is the 'biggest annual environmental event' or a 'big festival' for those working in the field of environment. In general, the environmental institution usually makes a statement, and urges organizations and individuals to organize awareness-raising activities. Non-governmental organizations and environmental activists gather momentum through rallies and exhibitions, organized knowledge-sharing events, including distribution of posters and pamphlets to commemorate this day.

The WED is celebrated on the first day (5 June) of the UN Conference on Human Environment held at Stockholm, Sweden in 1972 after the decision of the UNGA in December 1972. The UNGA also decided to establish the UN Environment Programme (The UN Environment) – a global program of the UN system on the environment. In 1973, countries celebrated WED with the theme 'Only One Earth' and continued to observe 5 June each year. While selecting the theme, key global environmental issues were/are considered. The themes ranged from conserving planet to combating desertification, reducing air and plastic pollution to species conservation and green economy, disposing the hazardous waste to climate change & development without destruction, including life on earth, conserving species, forests and habitats and planting a tree for peace.

In practice, a country is invited to host the WED each year. This year, Columbia in partnership with Germany will host WED on biodiversity. Columbia holds about 10 percent of the total global biodiversity recorded and is one of the 'mega-diverse' nations in the world. In 2019, China hosted WED on air pollution and the 2018 WED was hosted by India which focussed on 'beat plastic pollution'.

Nepal is observing WED since 1974. The then Prime Minister of Nepal Nagendra Prasad Rijal planted a tree sapling at the Godavari to observe this day in the mid-1970s. Nepal's Man and Biosphere (MAB) Committee coordinated the WED celebration in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984, the then Kathmandu district administration banned a rally, organized by a non-governmental organization, named 'Nepal Environment Conservation Group' on the occasion of WED, in Ratnapark and New Road areas. However, the distribution of the pamphlet was given permission after a full reading of its content.

With the start of the Environmental Impact Study Project (EISP) in 1981, the Government started creating environmental awareness, conducting an environmental assessment (EA), generating and sharing environmental information, and developing human resources through workshops and training till 1988. The EISP laid the foundation to develop a permanent mechanism to look after environmental issues. An Environment Division was placed in the Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management by discontinuing the project, EISP. The then Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation (MoFSC) was renamed to the Ministry of Forests and Environment (MoFE) in 1991 with the inclusion of the Environment Division. The MoFE was renamed to MoFSC after the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

The then MoFSC started coordinating the WED celebration in the mid-1980s. The 1986 WED plantation ceremony in Godawari drew the attention of the Minister on Godawari Marble Factory. The then Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation instructed EISP to conduct a study on the environmental impacts of Marble Factory and submit a report to the earliest possible. This initiated a process of 'closure and opening of the factory' for several years. In 1993, the Environment Protection Council decided to stop one of the quarries, lying towards Phulchoki mountain.

After the establishment of MoFE in 1991, few conservation activists questioned the government for linking the 'environment' with 'forests'. The message was: the government sent 'defeated army to fight another huge battle'. It means, the forestry organizations were 'proved ineffective' in conserving forests but they have been given the additional responsibility of conserving the environment. This resulted to renaming of MoFE to MoFSC and establishing the Environment Protection Council (EPC) in September 1993 to coordinate environmental matters. The National Planning Commission Secretariat, an advisory body, hosted another advisory body, the EPC. The Council coordinated WED celebrations in 1994 and 1995 and published a Journal of the Environment on 5 June in 1994 and 1995.

In September 1995, the then Ministry of Population and Environment (MoPE) was established and it started the coordination of the WED celebration right from 1996 and continued to publish the Journal of the Environment. The then MoPE published the state of the environment (SoE) report for the first time in 1998 using PSIR (pressure-state-impact-response) framework. It initiated activities to 'recognize institutions and individuals' engaged in improving the environmental conditions and organized 'ceremonial plantation' on the occasion of the WED. In 2005, the then MoPE was dissolved and environment was addressed by renaming the Ministry of Science and Technology into the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology. This 'merging and separating the environment' continued till 2015. Institutions and individuals were continuously awarded for their good works on 5 June each year, but SoE publication was discontinued. From the last 15 years, the state of Nepal's environment has not been officially published. However, journal publication has been restarted by the Department of Environment.

The environment ministry has been engaged in celebrating WED for over two and a half decades. Each year, the main function is formally inaugurated by the Prime Minister as also the chair of the EPC, although EPC is 'functionally dead'. Awarding prizes has been institutionalized. Climate change award is also offered on WED as per its provision on the Climate Change Policy (2011). The Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) has continued to recognize a journalist for the best environmental news/coverage. NGOs celebrate this day, as an 'annual environmental festival'. Several events are organized country-wide and have been maintained as a 'people's day'. A number of people participate in sharing ideas, concepts, & information and make commitments for action.

Countries are observing international days to create and/raise awareness, commit to implement rewarding activities, or review the effectiveness of environmental policies and strategies or activities. In Nepal, charming in celebrating international days is 'declining' as repeated commitments made in the 'written or verbal statements' have not been implemented. Such an event may also be a 'climbing gear' to some but a 'burden' for others.

Environmental ministry may need to observe a number of international days such as wetland (2 February), wildlife (3 March), forests (21 March), heritage (18 April as Chitwan and Sagarmatha National Parks are declared world heritage sites), biodiversity (22 May), environment (5 June), desertification (17 June), national parks days (24 August), and so on. After 27 years, 'environment' and 'forest' ministries were merged in 2018. Similar 'sector-syndrome' as noticed in the early 1990s prevails and the Department of Environment looks in 'low key' in influencing the decision-making processes, mobilizing human resources, utilizing available funds, and securing additional resources – funding and technologies.

On WED's 2020 theme, Nepal's richness in biodiversity has been maintained, from nearly a half-century, by establishing protected area system in the form of national parks, wildlife reserves, hunting reserve, conservation areas and buffer zones, including community forests which have also been instrumental in meeting national and international commitments on biodiversity conservation.

As a Party to the CBD, Nepal has prepared and implemented the National Biodiversity Strategy (2002) and its Implementation Plan (2006-2010). Nepal is in the final year in implementing the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) (2014-2020) with a 2050 vision for the conservation of biodiversity for resilient ecosystems and national prosperity. The NBSAP re-emphasized biodiversity management in protected areas (PAs), forests (outside PAs), range-lands, wetlands, mountains and agriculture lands. The Plan outlines actions to, inter alia, manage invasive alien species, reduce climate change impacts, and recognize, respect and utilize traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities, and generate & mobilize fund. The National Biodiversity Coordination Committee, constituted under the chair of the Minister for Forests and Environment, has a number of functions, including the preparation and dissemination of national status reports on NBSAP implementation, and submission of an annual report to the Parliament. The NBSAP can be considered a 'blueprint for action' on biodiversity conservation, sustainable use and benefit-sharing. However, its implementation is 'unknown' as a national report on implementation status is yet to make public. Previous initiatives in institutionalizing biodiversity registration and restoring lost biodiversity are yet to materialize or be translated into action to benefit from 'patenting', if any, of Nepal's biodiversity.

Several policies and programs underscore the importance of biodiversity and people at different levels, including politicians and decision-makers, continue to educate others, even those having good knowledge-base on biodiversity, from the last several years. The 15th Plan captures the objectives of the Biodiversity Convention. The government Policy and Programme for F.Y. 2020/021 have given importance to biodiversity conservation of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including botanical gardens. Concerted efforts are continuously required to translate policies, strategies, plans and programs into actions for better results. The Budget Speech of the Minister for Finance (28 May 2020) has lifted provisions on compensation for the use of forest areas which may contain 'precious biodiversity'. However, budget speech commits to conserve rare and threatened wildlife species. Recent policies on forests, agriculture and environment provide sufficient guidance and multiple opportunities to meet the three objectives of the Biodiversity Convention. However, it requires adequate implementation.

In spite of the untiring efforts of the government and people for nearly a half-century, Nepal's biodiversity is continuously affected by anthropogenic activities such as infrastructures, fire, use patterns, and habitat loss, or destruction. The concept of 'benefit sharing' in protected areas and community forests has started benefiting people. However, the concept of 'diversity leads to stability' and several provisions of the CBD are yet to be in place. Allocation of biodiversity-rich forests for large-scale infrastructures, such as in Nijgadh forests and opening of the National Parks for infrastructures and entertainment will likely challenge the biodiversity conservation efforts. The international community may urge to comply with the commitments on biodiversity.

Let us hope that WED 2020 will bolster biodiversity conservation, encourage to using bio-medicines for curing 'COVID-19', and also encourage the communities at provincial and local levels for conservation actions. On 5 June 2020, the government is encouraged to make public: (i) good practices and 'biodiversity milestones', at least of the previous year; (ii) planned actions for next one year (6 June 2020 to 5 June 2021) that ensure in meeting CBD objectives; and (iii) approaches to benefit people and national economy from biodiversity conservation.

batu uprety111.jpg

Batu Uprety

Former Joint-Secretary and Chief of Climate Change Management Division, Ministry of Environment (then), and former Team Leader, National Adaptation Plan (NAP) formulation process. E-mail: upretybk@gmail.com

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